Strategists in China make a habit of engrossing themselves in history. Betimes ideology tinges the findings they coax from the historical record, as one might expect from citizens of a communist regime—or indeed from human beings, full stop. Yet politics seldom invalidates their analyses of workmanlike topics in tactics, operations, or strategy. These, after all, involve the mechanics of how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will help Chinese Communist Party (CCP) magnates fulfill their political purposes. Inquiries into martial subjects are mostly apolitical since they cover the how, not the why, and thus are safe for free-range thinkers to explore. For example, PLA analysts seemingly have little trouble setting aside their natural skepticism toward Alfred Thayer Mahan and other Western strategic theorists. They afford Mahan & Co. respect and draw guidance from them despite their entanglement with the imperial legacy that so affronts patriotic Chinese.
All of that being the case, it cannot have escaped notice in China that the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf is bearing down on us, warranting a fresh look back. Fought in the waters and skies around the Philippine archipelago on October 24–25, 1944, Leyte Gulf ranks as the largest naval engagement in history by some measures. It was surely history’s last decisive fleet engagement (to date). As such it commands more than antiquarian interest in Communist China, a seafaring power on the make. Reviewing it can help PLA strategists, force designers, and commanders divine how to prosecute a future naval war in the Western Pacific—the same battleground where the U.S. Navy faced off against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) during World War II. What lessons will, and should, Beijing learn from studying the battle? Four candidates:
All warfare is grounded in deception: